David Burt, the Premier: the 100 days interview in full
Exactly 100 days after David Burt led his Progressive Labour Party to an historic landslide election victory on October 1, 2020, the Premier sat down with The Royal Gazette for an exclusive interview on Friday. This is the full interview.
Will the death of Anthony Manders, the Financial Secretary, have an impact on the pre-budget report and the February 26 Budget?
I’ll be completely honest. Those are not conversations which I have had with the Minister of Finance or the officials within the Ministry of Finance who are understandably very distraught.
Before he was Financial Secretary he was Assistant Financial Secretary so he had been working in that office for a significant period of time with an involvement in Budget items and others. So certainly without question there be an impact and there certainly will be a void that has been left as he has been responsible for the supervision and preparation for the last ten, 11, 12 Budgets for the country.
He was Acting Financial Secretary upon Donald Scott’s ascension to becoming Cabinet Secretary, so that was in 2010. So effectively since 2010, he’s been running the Ministry of Finance. It is without question a shock, a challenge, and there will be an impact, unquestionably.
As I said previously, I extend condolences to his family, wife and children, and his friends, and also the staff at the Ministry of Finance who are understandably distraught, and also throughout the wider Ministry, whether that be the Accountant-General’s office, where he started – certainly he was close with a number of persons there – and to the social communities that he was a part of as well.
On the weekends, when I would attend games in my constituency, at the Western Stars football club, you would always find Anthony Manders there.
On balancing the budget, with the finance minister ruling out the introduction of new taxes, what path towards fiscal stability do you see ahead of us?
I would look at it from a broad construct, and the broad construct is that the most important thing that the Government must engage in right now is dealing with the challenges at hand. The challenges at hand are certainly people that are struggling – a significant amount of persons in the country who are struggling due to the economic impacts of the pandemic.
It’s not just businesses that are forced or required to close, but the adjustment in many different ways of which we live and interact, which is necessary to minimise any possible transmission of the virus. So I don’t want to necessarily lay out timelines. We are without question constrained by the fact that our bar is pretty high.
We have to remember that upon coming into office, we did not raise the debt ceiling. The first time the debt ceiling had to be raised was to pay for Morgan’s Point. There was no increase in the debt ceiling prior to that. I will say that we are on target to continue to have an overall reduction in our debt. But we’re certainly without question challenged right now.
Our objective as a country must be to deal with the challenges we face, not only domestic challenges but the international challenges, which certainly confront the country, and work to generate economic growth.
Economic growth is key and critical. If we are in a cycle of cutting, we will be in a cycle of economic decline. What is essential for us is to be focused on economic growth. If you look at the measures of which the Government has done, whether it be the economic advisory committee that the Minister of Finance has put in place; whether it be the work which is happening on economic development from down here in the Cabinet office, from the initiatives which are advancing – not just the issues that have been proposed, but the issues that are advancing – I think we are standing ourselves in good stead. We have to continue along that path.
Certain things don’t happen overnight. I remember there was intense criticism about the promise of fintech, and why haven’t we seen the delivery of some of the things at the onset, but now we can see that the Government had the right call, the right decision; we see more businesses coming to the country to be licensed, and that are creating economic jobs and opportunity in future industries.
We have to make sure that we are continuing to stay ahead of the curve, and recognise that there are things we can do from an economic growth perspective. But the key is economic growth.
So when we’re looking at a timescale for a balanced budget, I can’t necessarily say that’s going to be today, tomorrow or a few years. What I can say is the Government is going to balance making sure we take care of the needs of persons who need help and assistance now, while looking to make sure that we grow our economy, so that we can meet our financial obligations in the future.
This has been quite a time of curveballs.
Absolutely. It’s a difficult issue. When you’re speaking about balanced budgets, the fact is that you can balance a budget and lose a country. You can certainly balance a Budget tomorrow, and have a whole lot of hungry people inside your country. We need to focus on not just budget balancing but having a balanced society, and I think that’s what’s important.
What’s the one thing you feel Bermuda has done best in managing the pandemic?
I think for the most part it’s been the community sense of recognising we’re all in this together, and coming together in a way to make sure that we can do what’s necessary to contain any outbreaks or further spread. So I think we’ve done a remarkable job. There’s been a few challenges here and there but overall I think we’ve done an incredible, remarkable job. If you ask about the bright spot, that’s the coming together of us as a community. Tearing down some traditional barriers to work together and saying, this is what we all have to do as a country together. That’s without question the biggest accomplishment.
Is there anything you would change?
Hindsight is 20-20. There’s a lot along the way.
Previously I indicated when dealing with this latest outbreak that maybe the Government could have taken measures sooner in order to restrict activities which would have had a large amount of people gathering. That’s one thing if you look back on this recent outbreak.
But overall we’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve done that by working together as a community, not only across the political divide, but soliciting ideas from many persons who have contributed different suggestions. We certainly have lessons to learn. This particular outbreak has certainly taught us some lessons. But I think what you have seen is the community has responded very well. We’re blessed to have the significant test capacity which we have.
It’s funny; the questions that were being asked in December was why does it take so long to get a test? Today, in January, we are imploring people to take advantage of the free community testing that exists. These things go in cycles. I would say by and large, the one thing that I’ve already admitted to and recognised is certainly, with this second outbreak, I think quicker action probably would have been better. But I can promise you, that mistake will not be made again.
In terms of lessons in governance and leadership, what have you learnt from this experience?
I would say that the experience has taught me as a leader of the need to do your best, to remain calm, and do your best to take into account all the various options being proposed, and try to come up with a position of consensus that works, and is understood. And also recognise that you may not know everything – and that you may not be the best at explaining everything, and that you can put the people who are best at explaining things at the forefront so that there can be a better understanding in the public sphere.
You’ve been Premier for 3½ years. What has surprised you about the job?
I don’t think the surprise is the, I would say, the level of work. That’s not what I’m getting at. I think the biggest surprise I’ve had in this job is the difficulty of balancing the family life with the professional life. That’s the biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with, personally.
I’m grateful I have a deputy leader that allows me to shut off. There are certain persons that don’t believe I should shut off, but it’s very important for me to try to maintain that balance.
In regards to the one thing that’s surprised me in this role on the professional level, I would say it’s the still reticence in some parts of the Bermuda community to not engage in honest and open dialogue, when honest and open dialogue is one of the things which are necessary in order to address issues that the country faces. That’s an issue we’re challenged with. In some places there are some communities that are more comfortable grumbling behind the scenes rather than engaging in direct conversation. I think that as a country we need to do a better job of maturing on that aspect.
In terms of timing the election, you said the Government needed to have a new mandate for the hard times coming up. Has this mandate been a help or a hindrance?
It’s without question been a help. Certainly when you have the space to not be focused on electoral politics, it allows the Government to be focused on governance. Without question, it’s a help to this Government and would have been a help to an alternate Government, if a different Government had been elected.
I want to say that since October, November and December, there haven’t been a significant number of tough decisions that have come to Cabinet. I’d say that every week is a tough one when we’re balancing the difficult challenges, but look, we’re dealing with a number of matters. Just take a look at some of the criticism the Government has come in for the arrangement to ensure the employees of the Fairmont Southampton were able to have funds, and not go hungry or be struggling and challenged.
Everything which the Government does is certainly a difficult decision. We’re always balancing. Government is often the choice between two bad choices, and you have to choose which is the least bad. But from the perspective moving forward, if we look at this budget cycle coming up, which is certainly going to be a challenging budget cycle, as we look at the decisions that have to be made around longstanding issues such as education reform and healthcare reform, I certainly think that not having to be worrying and focused on electoral politics is helpful, that the Government can focus on its agenda and executing its agenda.
One of the things we did very well in the last term was executing the agenda. We laid out a significant number of things in our election manifesto, and we accomplished them. We can do the same thing this time around.
The pandemic has shown the need for health insurance reform. If the reform was in a place a year ago, how do you think it would have changed how we dealt with the pandemic?
I don’t think it would have changed that much. There was healthcare finance reform proposed, which is more about how we pay for healthcare versus how healthcare is administered and delivered. One of the things you heard in our election platform is we’ve taken a step back and we’re going to go bigger. It’s not just going to be healthcare finance reform. There’s also going to be healthcare delivery reform, and focus on an integrated model of healthcare delivery. If you have an integrated model of healthcare delivery, you’re able to deliver healthcare more efficiently and effectively than in a fragmented system.
I don’t think if the original proposed models that went out for consultation with healthcare financing reform would have had much difference in impact on the delivery of healthcare services during the pandemic. The Government has stepped into a traditional role of making sure that primary care services, which are necessary in a pandemic setting, such as the testing and otherwise, were provided free of charge.
We heard the island needs to take this experience and rebuild our economy in ways that are equitable, especially in terms of our entrenched racial disparities. How do you propose to implement that?
The most important thing is to recognise, if the country has to grow economically, the economic growth cannot only benefit those persons who have always benefited in the economy. That’s the first instance. I think the Government has a good track record of making sure we deliver that. If you look right now, for instance, at the stimulus package that has been rolled out from the Ministry of Public Works, we are specifically going out to small contractors, going out to persons to make sure they can work and be employed, and continue those matters.
If you look at the changes that have happened with the procurement policy, to make sure that more small businesses can get government contracts, to make sure more women-owned business, black-owned businesses, persons who have disabilities to have access to these things, that is the way you make sure that you build a more fair and equitable society.
But the more fair and equitable society also has to go with the generation of wealth. And the generation of wealth in this country is inextricably tied to something I spoke of on numerous occasions, which is our unfair system of taxation. I’m pleased that the Minister of Finance has brought forward our Tax Reform Commission Act, which is going to reform our tax reform commission, because we have to look at more fundamental changes to our system of taxation.
Our system of taxation in this country taxes labour, but does not in any way, shape or form look at other forms of income, and that is fundamentally unfair. When we’re looking at a global system, where the country itself is under extreme pressure regarding its system of taxation, all these things have to be examined. This is something we proposed inside our election manifesto, it’s something we’re going to move forward on delivering, and it’s critical that we address big issues like that. It’s issues like that, that in the long term will lead to a more fair and equitable society.
It makes no sense that the business owner, who may employ 50 people, is paying for instance for social insurance the exact same amount his employees are making, if they’re making ten times the amount. It makes no sense that individuals who may own 30 or 40 properties, who are collecting massive amounts of income, are not paying any taxes on the amount they earn, but the person who has one, two or three jobs, because that’s the only way they can earn income, is paying taxes on that labour income. It’s something that the fiscal responsibility panel has been very, very clear on outlining the challenges. This is the panel that was set up by the previous administration. It’s actions like that which have to be delivered upon.
If you listen to the international business community that says we need to come to a consensus; if you listen to the labour community that says we need to come to a consensus, and if you listen to the political community that says we have to come to a consensus, I am relatively certain that by the next budget cycle we will have a consensus on the way forward on these issues. Not February, but the next one – it would be a little too much to ask the tax reform commission to come up with recommendations this quickly.
Fintech has come up a lot. I’ve been seeing Bitcoin in the news, with the prices setting new records. You’ve spoken before that fintech hasn’t developed perhaps as quickly as you hoped for. Do you think it was a case of overpromising?
I’m pleased. Would I have liked this to go faster? Absolutely. No question about it.
It’s one of the challenges, dealing with the systemic issues we have in Bermuda. We have a challenge when it comes to our banking structures, and a challenge when it comes to new, different and innovative industries having access to a financial system, so when they can transact their level of business. That’s been the holdback.
It’s the same thing that’s been the holdback with gaming. It’s the same thing that is the delay or challenge with implementation of fintech.
At the early stages, we have to remember that the fintech department was engaged with overseas banks to sign agreements with them so they would bank persons who went through our licensing process, because we could not guarantee them banking services with our own domestic banks. Those are the challenges.
When you look at that, you have to examine if that’s the same in fintech, in gaming, and that might be the same in cannabis and other industries, you have to look at how you fix those problems, so they don’t continue to impede any new industries you may want to introduce. From that perspective, certainly you’d see the work the Government promised in the election manifesto, the national digital bank, which I’m happy to talk about more later.
When it comes to fintech itself, we are making progress. Some of the local banks are slowly coming around. I know that one of the companies that recently had a licence, Bittrex Global, they’re going to be doing something soon, that Bermudians can go onto Bittrex and set up accounts and do all these things, because they’re licensed out of Bermuda, where it was difficult to do before. So there are more companies coming, more jobs being created inside the economy, and I think that for the Bermuda perspective, it was the right, strategic decision.
I would have liked it to advance faster, but I think we are in a far better position as a country, to have taken the steps that we did, to advance that industry so we can have a foothold. There are amazing innovations that are happening from Bermuda-based financial technology companies.
One of them is Circle, which is using its Bermuda company to offer interest rate yields on USDC. Bittrex, the same company I mentioned, launched an innovative product where they have tokenised trading of stocks, so you don’t even have to have access to a stockbroker and pay massive exchange fees in case you want to buy stocks. They’ve tokenised stock ownership, and you can go onto Bittrex and use your credit card to buy various stock – Apple and Tesla and these things.
It is an amazing improvement in financial technology which is happening in Bermuda. We’ve been known for insurance innovation, and we want to be known for financial technology innovation, and with the support of the Bermuda Monetary Authority and the lawyers, the fintech team, we are actually succeeding in that area. And I think there are more and better things to come.
How quickly can we see the national digital bank?
The national digital bank is not going to be an overnight project. There’s no question about that. The Cabinet approved the construction of the business plan. We did that in December. The contract is being finalised to advance at Prospect. What you’ll see in broad-scale community engagement. We’re going to be meeting with the Bermuda Monetary Authority, the Ministry of Finance and others next week, we can engage the Bermuda Bankers Association, certainly with the unions, the credit union. But we want something broad-based, that diversifies the base of ownership. We believe it makes good financial sense for there to be a publicly affiliated financial institution that is able to provide broader based financial ownership to the country.
There was news in education reform on the potential closing of primary schools. We wanted to ask why it didn’t get explicitly mentioned in the election campaign.
Let me put it this way. The one thing we’ve been discussing for a long time has been education reform. There’s no question, it was the number-one thing in our election manifesto in 2017; it was the number-two thing behind economic matters in our election manifesto in 2020. It is a broad-cased consultation. But I am reticent of the focus on the past. I am reticent of the focus on what exists currently.
I don’t believe there is a single Bermudian who does not believe we can make great increases and strides in public education. I think it is a mistake for us to be wedded to models of the past when this country has the collective power to construct something that works best for the future.
I want Bermudian public school students in the best facilities to prepare them for a future of learning. When we have students in buildings, some of which were constructed in the 1800s, we are not doing right by our students.
Though the focus is what transitions may mean, my focus is on what the new places of learning will look like, how our students will be able to excel in the new places of learning, and how we will be able to increase accountability and performance in the delivery of education.
It is something I know that persons would have wished us to have completed already, but with education reform we’re dealing with children. I would say it’s something you have to measure four times, not just two times, so you can get it right. So I am pleased with the consultation effort to date, and what I want us to focus on is the future. It’s very easy to be tied to the past, but that is not going to be a recipe for success.
I will tell the story as many times as possible. I knew that we had to remove ourselves from this process the day the Minister of Education said that when we were looking at these things, they were looking in order to accomplish the school reforms we had to do with the resources which were allocated, that there would need to be a reduction in the number of primary schools.
I remember the conversation. It was shared, that this was the outline, and I remember the conversation was, one of the schools that was slated, which has gone out to public consultation, is Northlands. And I remember saying, you can’t do that; that’s where my daughter goes to school.
I remember 30 seconds later, saying we need to make sure that we’re not a part of this decision. And the decision is made in the best interests of the country. Because individuals, politicians, persons, communities, everyone will have their own little corner they want to fight for.
The decisions we make when it comes to education reform has to be what is in the best interests of the students now and the future for the entire system, and not just what in the best interests of my child, or the child whose parents and grandparents have always gone to one particular school.
This is a difficult and big decision. But it’s something that has to be done. I’ll say this. I do not believe the Bermudian people will forgive the Government which I lead, which has earned this historic mandate, for not taking strong, decisive action on things which have been outstanding for some time.
We’ve seen some extraordinary scenes this week in Washington, DC. Inevitably there have been comparisons drawn with December 2, 2016, outside the House of Assembly.
Is that an unkind comparison to make?
I would certainly think so.
Leaving aside the police management of the event – are these apples and oranges?
I haven’t heard that comparison, and I would say the persons making that comparison are probably people who are stirring the issue. Here’s one thing I can say. In Bermuda we have a tradition of, I would say, the smooth transfer of power, and I am hopeful there would be a tradition of the smooth transfer of power in the United States which will be upheld. I would say the matters which took place in the United States are certainly shocking and surprising for some, and for others they are not.
I would say the thing that was most shocking and surprising for me was the fact of the inherent and clearly evident disparity in the treatment by the police of protesters who are largely white versus protesters who are not. And we saw that play out, and that disparity was clearly noted and clearly evident.
That was the thing that, I wouldn’t say shocked me the most, because it doesn’t shock me. Because I am alive to the fact of the inherent bias in policing. The inherent bias in policing that exists in the United States also exists here in Bermuda – something that the Government has spoken out against on numerous occasions; something on which we’ll continue to speak out.
So I think that comparison is unkind, but I am not surprised some of your readers have made it.
I’m not speaking of readers.
It’s the first time I’ve heard it, so I can only assume that’s where this has come from.
It’s been on Facebook. Moving on, we have a new Governor – how are you getting on with our new Governor?
I’ve been on vacation, and the Governor arrived late, so we’ve only had two official meetings. The Deputy Premier took two official meetings. The relationship between the Government and Government House is inherently, I would say, a challenged one in a country with a Government that is committed to constitutional development further than our current constitutional constructs. And the challenges you have where there are specific reserved powers to Government House and the challenges that arise when there is a conflict between those.
But our relationship with the new Governor will be cordial, as was our relationship with the former Governor. There will be times where there is agreement, and there will be times when there is disagreement. But what we have to remember is, the Governor is a representative of her majesty’s Government, and is a public officer inside of the United Kingdom civil service, and their job is to make sure they represent the views of the UK Government here in Bermuda, and to represent the views of the Bermuda Government to the UK Government. That relationship will continue.
I’m looking forward to engaging on a personal level with the new Governor. I say that because she has a young family; I have a young family as well, so that’s certainly something we have in common there.
October 1 was a landslide. You have a large majority to manage within your party. Have you encountered any problems since October 1 with that large majority, to exercise control over?
You said exercise control over. I would think that any leader of any political party when you’re asking persons to exercise control over people that have been elected by their representatives, would probably do the same thing. It’s not my job to exercise control. It’s my job to do my best to make sure that we build consensus.
Part of the work we’re engaged in is to make sure that all the 29 members of the House of Assembly, because there’s the Speaker of course, who does not sit in our caucus, and the five members of the Senate, are engaged in the work. So we’ve had caucus teams, we’ve set up a little bit more additional structure with parliamentary private secretaries, unpaid but assisting on certain matters.
It’s just about getting more people involved to work. So we assign people special projects, we get more people involved in chairing boards, assisting in the work of Government. There’s more work to do. Some people are pleased, because in the last Parliament we had certain MPs that were chairing two and three boards. There’s certainly more work to spread around.
But the most important thing is to make sure that people are involved in the work of governance. That’s what we have always strived to do. It’s something that I have to redouble my efforts as leader of the party to make sure that we can do it, instead of the 24 Members of Parliament in our caucus, now there’s 29.
My choice of words was a poor one. But there are things you and your team want to get done. Have there been challenges from within this majority that you’ve had to reckon with?
The easiest way to stay away from challenges inside of any political construct is to do what you promised. We were all elected on the same election manifesto. So you don’t have difficulty when you’re pushing forward with what you were elected on in the election manifesto. It’s the same thing that happened the last time around. We were very clear with what our plans were. We put those plans to the public; the public ratified those plans and we’re moving forward on executing those plans, on issues of digital banks, of family offices, financial stimulus, advancing the tourism economy, advancing and tabling Bills such as the Cannabis Act and others, these are things we promised in our election manifesto, that all our Members of Parliament were elected on. From that perspective, my challenge is making sure that we can get that significant body of work done. I would say we are helped by the fact that we have more persons to assist in that effort.
Are we likely to see casinos in Bermuda this year?
Yes. I would hope so, without question. There’s continued work going on to advance there; I’m pleased with the work that’s happened with the St Regis Hotel, as the Minister of Tourism, but as I said, there are challenges.
And the challenges that exist, the same challenges with fintech, the same challenges that we have discussed, when it comes to banking. I think there’s some progress being made. I remain hopeful; I am expecting certainly that we’ll have a casino, at least one casino, operating in Bermuda this year, and we’ll continue to work on that. But it has not been easy.
If it would have been easy, we would not be sitting here in 2021, about seven years after the former Government passed the Casino Gaming Act, without a casino in the country. And the holdback for casino gaming has not been anything outside of the inability or the challenges that our local banks have when it comes to banking casino gaming proceeds.